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Cass Lake-Bena school referendum fails by wide margin

CASS LAKE—Cass Lake-Bena voters denied a ballot measure that would have allowed their school district to borrow millions for a series of facilities improvements, including a new elementary school.

The school district's $37.8 million bonding referendum failed Tuesday by a vote of 442 to 144—75 percent to 25 percent—according to unofficial totals posted to the Minnesota Secretary of State's website. That means the district will not be allowed to borrow that money to build a new elementary school for grades 3-5, renovate its existing elementary school for pre-k through second grade and renovate and update several other facilities.

"It's just really sad news," Cass Lake-Bena Superintendent Rochelle Johnson said Tuesday evening, adding that she and School Board members will "regroup" and see what they can accomplish in-house. "Tomorrow's another day, and we'll just pick up and just keep doing what we do the best that we can do it."

Johnson and other district leaders pored over different plans and ultimately unveiled two options to residents in early May. The defeated $37.8 million referendum was a slightly less costly revision of one of those two plans. School Board members agreed to put it on ballots only a few days after voting to draft a "review and comment" application to the Minnesota Department of Education for a significantly smaller-scale plan that would have borrowed only $16.2 million.

Consultant-led surveys indicated strong support among residents for new and improved facilities at the district, but some said they were skeptical of the sweeping construction and renovation project's cost and the new taxes that it would impose.

District staff said they've had to turn away students who might otherwise open enroll there, and the district can't apply for more pre-k funding because it doesn't have enough space for those students. They also described overcrowded elementary classrooms and aging mechanical and electrical systems.

More than 1,900 people were registered to vote in the district on Tuesday morning, according to the secretary of state's website.

Joe Bowen

Joe Bowen covers education (mostly K-12) and American Indian affairs for the Bemidji Pioneer.

He's from Minneapolis, earned a degree from the College of St. Benedict - St. John's University in 2009, and worked at the Perham Focus near Detroit Lakes and Sun Newspapers in suburban Minneapolis before heading to the Pioneer.

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